Fact check: How many millionaires are in Congress, compared to rest of US?

Posted January 24, 2020 6:22 p.m. EST
Updated January 24, 2020 7:59 p.m. EST

— With income inequality a persistent hot topic in the Democratic presidential primary, it’s not surprising that a familiar meme is circulating on Facebook claiming that Congress is far richer than the public.

The Facebook post says that 50 percent of Congress is made up of millionaires, compared with only 1 percent of America as a whole. Similar Facebook posts have circulated at least since 2011, but we wanted to find more current numbers.

Unlike many of the statements we fact-check on Facebook, this one has some truth to it. A key analysis showed that close to half of the House and Senate members are millionaires. We couldn’t find a source that said 1 percent of the American public are millionaires, but we do know that it’s far less than in Congress.

The post was recently flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed.

Many members of Congress are millionaires

The Facebook post says: "Let that sink in and tell me again how you become a multi millionaire earning $174,000 annually?"

That is the salary for members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, with leadership positions paying slightly more. But many members were wealthy before they arrived.

The Center for Responsive Politics compiles financial disclosures of members of Congress. Those disclosure forms do not require exact values, so the reports show the value of assets and liabilities within a range. The intent of the disclosures is to highlight potential conflicts of interest, not give a complete accounting of a member’s personal valuation, according to the center.

The center’s data for 2016 shows the members’ financial data in three categories: minimum net worth, average and maximum net worth. If we use the average net worth category for the House and the Senate, it showed about 48 percent have worths of at least $1 million. The richest member was then-U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. who had a net wealth of about $324 million and made much of his wealth from a car alarm company.

Roll Call analyzed 530 members by their by their minimum net worths. By that measurement, there are 207 who are worth at least $1 million. That method results in about 39 percent of the members being millionaires.

Sorting out the number of Americans who are millionaires

It’s clear that the wealth of Congress is disproportionate to the general public, but by how much?

According to the Survey of Consumer Finances from the Federal Reserve Board, 12 percent of family economic units had $1 million or more of net wealth (all assets minus all debts), said Janet Holtzblatt, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. A family economic unit consists of the heads of the families and dependents who live with them.

We found some other analyses about how many Americans are millionaires, but none were the 1 percent cited in the Facebook post.

Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report showed that there are approximately 18.6 million Americans with a net worth in excess of $1 million, which works out to about 8 percent of the adult population.

Spectrem Group found that in 2018, there were 11.8 million American households with a net worth of at least $1 million. That works out to about 5 percent of the adult population. The market research firm quantifies millionaire households by net worth, not including primary residence.

It’s possible that, when the Facebook post said that 1 percent of people are millionaires, it was referring to annual income, which is different than net worth. Net worth includes a person’s cash, home value, stocks, bonds and other property minus any debts owed.

But if we used income as the benchmark, the calculation for Congress would be different. The House and Senate members don’t earn $1 million in their salary, but some earn investment income.

For the population as a whole, IRS data for 2017 showed about 500,000 tax returns had incomes of at least $1 million. There were about 104 million tax returns filed, so that means less than 1 percent were for people who earned at least $1 million.

PolitiFact: Half-true

PolitiFact ruling

A Facebook post said 50 percent of the members of Congress are millionaires compared with only 1 percent of the American public as a whole.

The number of millionaires in Congress is hard to pinpoint precisely, because they disclose their finances in ranges. But data from the Center for Responsive Politics showed that about 48 percent were worth at least $1 million.

The post understates the number of millionaires among the public. A more accurate number would be between 5 and 12 percent. But the general point that millionaires in Congress far outpace those among citizens is correct.

This statement rates Half True.

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